Archive for January 2013
In Ligon v. City of New York the ACLU challenged the NYPD’s aggressive patrolling of private apartment buildings, part of the controversial stop and frisk program officially known as Operation Clean Halls and the Trespass Affidavit Program. The ACLU argued that systematic use of suspicionless stop and search tactics put tenants living in the buildings and visitors at an elevated risk of being unlawfully searched and arrested, violating the Fourth Amendment. On January 8th Judge Shira Scheindlin of Federal District Court in Manhattan ruled that the NYPD’s stop and frisk program which had subjected hundreds of thousands of New York residents to illegal stops that for many, ended in unlawful arrests, was clearly unconstitutional.
The objectionable practices NYC residents have had to bear at the behest of NYPD officers have produced frictions within communities that increase rather than minimize social disorder. Last November Alternet reporter Robert Gangi offered a vivid account of life in New York’s virtual penal colonies:
Black and brown young men stopped and frisked for no apparent reason, at times arrested and ticketed for trespass while standing in front of their own buildings; drivers pulled over and ticketed for not wearing a seat belt even though they were using the device; people in psychiatric crisis, clearly disoriented and confused, thrown to the ground, handcuffed, and locked up; LGBT persons called derogatory names, questioned rudely and inappropriately touched as they enter a local community center or gather in a group on a neighborhood street corner; sex workers arrested for simply carrying condoms or forced to provide sex in return for their release; street vendors hassled, fined and arrested for violating minor rules that are arbitrarily enforced; homeless people roughed up – their belongings often destroyed – and apprehended for begging on the subway or sleeping on a park bench.
Although the New York Federal Court ruled against the NYPD’s policing tactics tensions between residents and police are mounting. The recent beating, gay-bashing and framing of Jabbar Campbell, by police officers from Brooklyn’s 77th Precinct is indicative of the culture of violence that permeates the NYPD and the assumption of impunity with which its officers operate. Campbell recounted how during a party he was throwing for the transgender community he heard banging at his door. He looked at the security video streaming in his apartment before going to open it. On video a police officer turned the camera away from the door. Moments later, Jabbar answered the knock and was meted out slurs like “fag”, and “homo” by police officers, who, witnesses say, punched him continually in the face.
While stop and frisk has been at the center of public attention, the NYPD’s “productivity goals” – the off-the-record arrest and ticket quota system the department uses to generate more favorable crime statistics and evaluate officers- has barely surfaced in the press. Indiscriminate ticketing and unlawful arrests by officers scrambling to meet their quotas have been the productive result of the NYPD’s secret policy. The militarized direction that the NYPD in particular and police forces across the country in general, are moving in, has received even less coverage. New York City is the microcosm for America’s sprawling surveillance state. Trapwire, Raymond Kelly’s surveillance helicopter missions, the integration of facial recognition technologies into existing CCTV networks all point to this.
As the state’s police forces are turned more and more against the people oppressing and surveilling the population increases in importance. Police chiefs aren’t oblivious to the fact that repeated instances of misconduct and excessive use of force undermine the legitimacy police authority. Once communities feel they have to protect themselves from police, distrust is so entrenched that nothing short of wholesale reform in conjunction with a massive and sincere initiative launched by police departments asking for a chance to earn back the trust of the people, is going to reconcile the harm done to communities. But breeding distrust has it’s benefits, especially for surveillance tech companies seeking lucrative contracts with police departments and corporations eager to externalize the cost of protecting their infrastructure from terrorists foreign and domestic, let alone police forces own ambitions to expand their dominion. One has to be blissfully unaware of how state and corporate power consolidate themselves to achieve their absolute ends, order and profit, to believe that a ruling against the NYPD or any other police force will be adequate to deter police abuse and keep in check the security institution’s penchant for violent control and institutional drive for expansion.
France’s approach to military intervention differs from America’s heavy handed global militarism in one sense while mirroring aspects of it in another. Whereas American led interventions over the past 12 years have often been waged unilaterally, have been open-ended (no exit strategy), continued in spite of abysmal public support, or waged as shadowy covert operations (Obama’s so called light-foot print strategy) without oversight or congressional approval, France has tended to intervene in multilateral scenarios at the request of foreign governments (Ivory Coast in 2011, Mali 2012) and where protecting already established economic interests is concerned. America contrarily has a recent history of “preemptive warfare” to acquire access to new economic resources abroad and “forward engagement”, a project to prepare global rapid response teams to confront “unplanned consequences” around the world; in other words, position itself for future acquisitions of coveted resources.
Where France’s use of military force resembles the United States is in the way the state operates to ensure foreign investors that their investments abroad are safe. Look at how France immediately garnered logistical and financial support for the Mali incursion from Germany, Belgium, Canada and Denmark, all countries tied to gold mining, oil and gas prospecting and uranium extracting operations in the region. France, a nuclear power with the world’s fourth largest military budget operates as a corporate security force to assure major foreign investors that profits will continue to be generated in regions of the world where French based multinationals and quasi private public companies like Areva conduct business. The major difference between the French exercise of military might and America’s is the difference between the desire to maintain clout in existing regions of strategic interest and global domination. France’s more limited military capacity typically confines the global reach of the former colonial power to areas still defined by colonial borders like North and West Africa where France once dominated. America’s delusions of empire outlined in the recently published US National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030 stand in stark contrast to France’s military pursuits. Global Trends 2030 makes clear America’s continued aspirations to be a benevolent “global security provider” or “global policeman”. The document is essentially a confessional by failed sci-fi writers who landed jobs in America’s intelligence-security-complex. As American military operations become increasingly secretive, as the CIA mutates more and more into a special operations outfit (as opposed to its traditional role as foreign intelligence provider), as the world wide construction of CIA bases comes to resemble an edifice complex, America reveals itself for what it is – a declinist fortress with a penchant for planetary destabilization. France’s military plays a more modest role – corporate security force of limited territory defined by history. The legacy of French intervention in its former colonies follows a disturbing trend: “it undertook 45 military operations in its former colonies between 1960 and 2005.” Including the 2011 ousting of Qadaffi, the 2011 intervention in Gabon, and the most recent intervention in Mali that amounts to 48. France’s policy of responding to its handpicked regional leaders seems to be trading off quite well as France and the business interests they back shore up greater access to the resources once sought in French colonies. The legacy of colonialism endures. When spun the right way it is made to seem heroic.
France’s “welcomed” intervention in Mali, which began last Friday may have had Bamako talking about nothing else but their appreciation for France’s military support against “Islamists” in the north, but France’s presence in its former colonial territory is a reminder that western imperial interests prevail in the region; restoring national security in Mali is the guise to ensure regional interests are protected.
Mali, one of the world’s poorest countries is also one of the richest in gold, metals and ore. Mali’s Taudeni Basin which straddles Algeria and Mauritania is one of the most coveted untapped oil fields in West Africa. Sonatrach, the Algerian state owned oil company where employees were dramatically taken hostage this week by militants from the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, secured oil exploration rights in 2007 along with other companies seeking riches in the sand. But Mali is also suspected to be uranium rich like its neighbor Niger. The Kidal Project in the northeastern part of the country, the very part of Mali now under siege, has been marked by uranium prospectors for exploration. Areva, the French uranium mining company has been extracting in Niger for 50 years exporting uranium to power France’s nuclear plants. Protecting this area to secure future operations is primary for France and its energy clients, namely Germany. France sells electricity generated at its nuclear plants to Germany and Areva employs 5,200 employees in Germany. Germany’s number one soccer club FC Nurnberg sports Areva jerseys courtesy of their corporate sponsor. This past week Germany vowed public support for France’s incursion into the region. So did Canada, Belgium and Denmark countries that domicile major gold and metal mining companies conducting operations in Mali. The joint undertaking to oust Mali’s trouble makers in the name of quelling regional instability tells a tale different than that found in state official’s rhetoric.
We have one goal. To ensure that when we leave, when we end our intervention, Mali is safe, has legitimate authorities, an electoral process and there are no more terrorists threatening its territory.
This is the official narrative France and its backers profess. The hollow protect-democracy-and-freedom spiel might not continue to be so captivating when resource exploration transitions into resource extraction. Let’s see how welcoming Malians will be to Areva Mali when radioactive substances begin to turn up in wells, when the harmattan winds blow radioactive clouds across the Sahara and into the Sahel. Today hundreds of thousands of Malians have fled their homes as violence engulfs their towns and cities. The displaced may return only to be uprooted from their communities again by the humanitarian saviors who secured their land for “development”. In a region recognized as a literal corporate gold mine providing investors assurance that their ventures will be protected and profits will be turned is the central aim of the current intervention. To be misled again by the trumpeting of “enlightened states” carrying out humanitarian interventions with all the altruism and moral fervor needed to cloak the underlying motives of war, is to willfully ignore the economic factors pulling western imperialists into this conflict.
Before the Harmattan Winds
After a two night slow boating trip up the Niger River from Mopti I arrived at the ferry landing . At the northernmost bend of the Niger the ferry docked. I disembarked with hundreds of people, the things they carried, goats and sheep. Children were splashing in the brown water. Women were washing pots, pans and clothes. Men hauled solid blocks of salt onto the flatbeds of run-down pickups. I was guided towards an old blue pickup. Issa Coulibaly signaled me to hop in the back with him, Jake and Kunal. A man in a blue Tagelmust, the traditional indigo blue turban worn by Taureg men in the Sahara drove us through the desert to Le Boctou Hotel. Stepping out of the pickup the driver raised his hands to towards the orange sky, “Welcome to the middle of fucking no-where”, he said gruffly. Harsad – good-bye.
I spent several days wandering the dusty streets of Timbuktu in 2006. Le Boctou stands at the center of town caught in a distant past, frozen in the silence of Sahara vastness. I stayed here for a night listening to the susurrous wind and the bleating of fornicating goats until sunrise. On my second night I enjoyed millet beer in a calabash and a sweat drenching dance party hosted in a mud brick home equipped with a sony stereo blaring DMX, Magic System, Notorious BIG and Tata Pound. Antiquity and modernity collided. Dionysius surged through our veins as we broke into dance circles hollering into the otherwise reticent night.
Virtually everyone with the means to escape fled this dusty town when the militant islamist group Ansar Dine, “Defenders of the Faith” took advantage of the gains the Taureg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad made in the January 2012 uprising, deposing the secular Tuareg rebel forces. Ansar Dine conquered Timbuktu spreading chaos and imposing a brutal brand of Sharia law last June. Dancing is now prohibited. Listening to music is an offense punishable by amputation.
Like Timbuktu, Gao, Kidal, Douentza, Diabaly and Konna, these northern Malian cities have fallen to a dynamic alliance of Islamist forces. The Islamists’ advancement south, only 50 miles from Mali’s second largest city, Mopti, provoked French intervention. Airstrikes have bombarded targets in Konna and surrounding villages since President Francois Hollande ordered them last Friday. But hours after the French foreign minister declared France had blocked “the advance of the terrorists”, militants pushed into the town of Diabaly installing themselves among the people. The whack-a-mole challenge of ousting mobile militants familiar with the terrain and hardened by decades of war has begun. So too has the media’s oversimplification of the conflict in Mali and the strategic posturing by external, invested political leaders.
Over the next few blog posts I will try to clarify what is happening in Mali. I hope to clarify which armed groups are involved, how they differ and what they stand to gain or lose in the current conflict. Later I will try to illustrate the political and economic incentives driving state and corporate actors to support war in Mali’s northern extremes, shedding light on the complicity of western governments in the creation of this terrifying crisis.
The Maghreb region is a cauldron of instability that has reached its boiling point in Mali. Conflicts in North African countries spanning the Sahara are particularly vulnerable to spilling over into other countries due in large part to the way national boundaries were constructed without consideration to ethnicity. Some ethnic groups like the Taureg who constitute a majority in the territories under siege but who also represent significant populations across the Sahara in Niger, Mauritania and Chad for instance, were forced to live within a nation ruled by culturally and linguistically distinct sub-Saharan groups in Bamako. Essentially Tauregs constitute a majority in the Saharan north of countries where they otherwise represent a small minority. While Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb gets the most attention, for reasons that I will soon discuss, other armed groups, a diverse mixture of islamist, secular and ethnic confound the situation. Al Jazeera correspondent May Ying Welsh has a concise piece, Making sense of Mali’s armed groups breaking down the armed factions engaged in the struggle for power and survival. Differentiating the groups involved and understanding their particular ambitions is imperative if we are to make any sense of the conflict in Mali.
Let’s identify who is currently involved in the war in Mali and identify some of the drives that compel them to wage it.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA)
The secular Taureg rebel group, The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) desire an independent state in northern Mali, particularly a state in a region they claim as the homeland of the peoples of northern Mali (this includes Songhai, Fulani, Arab peoples), Azawad. Tauregs, traditional desert nomadic traders have been vying for this part of the country since 1963. Although the exact boundaries of this idealized state are vague, it is clear that Azawad refers to the towns and territory that Tauregs, Songhai, Fulani and Berabiche Arabs have historically roamed through and occupied in the Saharan north. Dreams of reclaiming this vast desert territory have led to decades of tensions between the desert dwellers of the north and sub-Saharan groups in the South that have fomented rebellion.
The first Taureg rebellion was quashed by the Malian army relegating Taureg’s to a virtually unrepresented ethnic group in the poverty stricken north. The second Taureg rebellion in 1990’s descended the country into an effective civil war fought in Mali’s northern territory. Though that conflict ceased with the 1995 Peace Accord and the ceremonial Burning of the Guns in Timbuktu, the Tauregs remained restive, resentful of their lack of participation in the military, and politics and frustrated by the lack of resources invested in their region. By 2006 a short outburst had gripped the north as Tauregs attacked government buildings in Gao, citing lack of opportunity as an aggravation. Last March Captain Amadou Sanago, a disgruntled soldier led the junior ranks of the Malian Army to defect and stage a coup in Bamako. Corruption and the Malian government’s negligence in equipping the armies to beat back the Taureg rebellion unfolding in the North was Sanago’s reason d être . Sanago briefly came to power as transitional President. His promise to equip the Malian military to take back territory lost to Tauregs in the North went unfulfilled. Emboldened by the fallout of Qadaffi heavily armed and war hardened Taureg mercenaries returned to Mali to reclaim their historical homeland from the weak government in the South. A new power dynamic emerged that transiently put the MNLA in control of the Azawad region. The Tauregs triumph over towns and cities located in the Azawad proved short lived as more powerful forces sought power in the Saharan wild.
Ansar Dine, Tamashek for Defenders of the Faith is a group comprised predominantly of local Ifoghas Tauregs. Berabiche Arabs and other smaller ethnic groups seeking opportunity have also joined the ranks. Ansar Dine is bent on establishing Sharia Law throughout Mali and across the Islamic world. In an Al Jazeera column William G. Mosley noted that Ansar Dine has been “less concerned with territorial autonomy than the ability to impose Sharia law in the northern regions of the country”. The militant groups leader, Lyad Ag Ghali became a power player during the Taureg rebellion of the 1990’s, gaining further esteem when he helped the government in Bamako, then presided over by Amadou Toumani Toure (the President disposed last March) negotiate a ceasefire with Tauregs who raised arms in the 2006 conflagration. Ghali also played a role negotiating ransoms of behalf of Bamako with another Islamist group in the region, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Niger’s foreign minister Mohamed Bazoum recently said that AQIM’s presence in northern Mali was part of a deal between the group and the deposed President of Mali Amadou Toumani Toure (ATT), a deal brokered by ATT’s close political associate Lyad Ag Ghali. Hostage ransom money from European governments was allegedly spread around to Malian officials while AQIM was given free rein in Taureg areas, with a wink and a nod from the Malian Army
Further allegations hold that President Toure brokered a deal with AQIM allowing them to operate in Mali’s extreme north as long as they kept the ambitions of self-determined Tauregs in check. Toure has also been accused of diverting funds given to Mali by the US to fight terrorism in the Sahara, the so-called “second front” of the war on terror, to support AQIM with the military supplies needed to achieve their end of the deal, keeping the Tauregs in check and lining the pockets of Bamako officials including Toure himself with the booty of ransom.
Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO)
MUJAO is a splinter group of AQIM. May Ying Welsh described the armed group as “the most opaque of the al-Qaeda-linked groups in northern Mali.” Their aims, like Ansar Din are to establish Sharia law. They differ from Ansar Din more on composition than in constitution as their ranks swell with foreign mujahedeen rebels.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
AQIM developed in Algeria during the civil war between the military government and Islamic guerrillas that raged throughout the country in the 1990’s. Members of Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the dominant force fighting to overthrow the government formed the Salafist Group for Preaching Combat in 1998 following the decline of GIA’s popularity after a wave of civilian massacres provoked outrage. When Nabil Sahraoui became the national emir of this faction in 2003 he was reported to have pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda. The relationship was reaffirmed in 2006 by Al Qaeda’s Ayman Al Zawahiri. Abu Musab Abdul Wadud now commands AQIM.
AQIM has been present in Mali since 2003. Mali’s uncontrolled northern territory provides an opportune haven for AQIM to conduct operations. Kidnapping western tourists and journalists helped AQIM raise an estimated $250 million in ransoms over the last decade. Drug smuggling across the Sahara has also been a vital source of revenue. Funds raised from these activities have helped the Islamist group purchase weapons needed to ultimately overthrow the Algerian government. Establishing a “pure” Islamic society in Algeria and continuing to wage war against western imperialist forces are other declared objectives. Mali’s vast uncontrolled region is a strategic location for AQIM to carry out its goals.
Many Malians blame the MNLA for initiating the rebellion and problematically conflate them with innocent Tuareg civilians and Islamist groups. Relying on such oversimplifications one turns a blind eye, justifying the killing of anyone civilian, Islamist, or rebel in the name of fighting Al-Qaeda. But that is and has been the intention of all state and corporate actors with a stake in the region.
Obama’s foreign policy assumes that by limiting the number of American boots in foreign countries and carrying out interventions wherever possible with drones, special forces operations and cyber attacks that America’s presence abroad will be considered benign. The consensus among mainstream Democrats that a US foreign policy which poses little risk to American troops hardly constitutes a war at all is precisely what Obama needs to continue his secret wars. Public opinion polls demonstrate a nation weary of US wars abroad and top Obama advisors have been advocating reduced US presence.The press after a decade of reporting high US casualties in occupied Afghanistan and Iraq can turn their attention to peace time reporting and foment America’s next “real” intervention with Iran. David Sanger’s piece in yesterday’s New York Times highlights how the White House conceives US military activity under the Obama Administration; US force abroad as it currently stands is defined by “caution, covert action and a modest military footprint.” Describing the effect of US military force in countries lucky enough to be spared “shock and awe” as only leaving a “light footprint” masks a war fueling deep hatred of the US. It also, again, illustrates America’s impressive ability to detach itself from the global suffering it causes. The why-do-they-hate-us camp is perennially vindicated.
A little thought experiment may help us feel how light Obama’s military touch really is.
Imagine that ten years ago the United States was invaded by tens of thousands of foreign people. They killed by the thousand lighting up night skies with missiles launched from fighter jets and explosives launched from tanks. They rounded up “insurgents” detaining them, torturing them, stripping them naked and humiliating them. Sometimes these barbaric foreigners would pose for pictures urinating on a deceased family member’s corpse. Imagine things like this happening for ten years as your country is reduced to a squalid wasteland. The blown up bridges, lack of electricity, water shortages, destroyed schools and hospitals lives and dreams are a constant reminder of the death and destruction the United States has endured. Then imagine after ten years of this brutal occupation, these foreign people leave after having installed a regime that suits their business interests. Your backyard is mined for, I suppose coal if you happen to live in Appalachia or Wyoming. Whatever. The businesses stay and dig your earth as the foreign occupiers leave. You are told by these former occupiers that the war has come to an end. The regime in power sort of echoes this. A lot of them are still around your country at “their” bases. Now imagine these strange aircrafts occasionally firing missiles at your neighbor’s house because the former occupiers identified an insurgent, no a militant, yes that’s what you are now called. Whereas you used to worry about getting in a car accident on your morning commute you now fear being blown up by a drone as you gather dried cow dung to heat your shanty. Can you feel the unbearable lightness of Obama?